Why We Laugh

March 16, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

Va-yikra

Of all the traditions, customs, and comments surrounding this week’s festival of Purim, one of the most curious is found in the second chapter of Maimonides’s Laws of Megillah in his authoritative Mishneh Torah. In the time of the Messiah, Maimonides states, none of the books of the Prophets and none of the books of the Writings will be read in public, except one: the Megillah. He goes on to say that all the Jewish holidays will be annulled, except one: Purim. There will be no Passover matzah, no Hanukkah latkes, no Jewish holidays at all. Only the reading of the Megillah and the messianic making of hamentaschen – jelly, poppy seed, chocolate, and otherwise – will continue in those future times. Although he offers a prooftext, Maimonides never really explains why all our observances marking significant events like creation, the Exodus, and the giving of the Torah should cease in the messianic era, and yet Purim – a lighthearted holiday given over to drinking, costumes, silliness, and most of all, laughter – that holiday and that holiday alone will endure.

It is a curious passage, one that calls for a thoughtful, theologically minded response. So it may surprise you that I will approach the question by sharing with you not one, not two, but three cringeworthy jokes. A few months ago, I began a new tradition when I meet with every bar and bat mitzvah student, this week’s included. I ask each student to tell me their favorite joke. I can’t say for sure why I began this tradition. It breaks the ice; it shakes things up; I am always looking for good material; and, quite honestly, I think every human being should walk this earth with a joke (or a dvar torah) ready. Why not begin in seventh grade? When the student leaves my office, I write down the joke. I have already collected quite a few. Here are three quick ones from this year:

Joke #1:
A man walks into the library and says, “Can I please have a burger and fries?”
The librarian responds, “Sir, this is a library.”
And the man says (in a hushed tone), “Oh, sorry! Can I please get a burger and fries?”

Joke #2:
A man brings his dog to the talent agent boasting, “My dog can speak!”
The talent agent says, “Prove it!”
The owner turns to his dog and asks, “What’s on top of the house?”
“Roof,” the dog replies.
Then the owner turns to the dog and asks, “What does sandpaper feel like?”
“Rough,” the dog replies.
As the agent begins to lose his patience, the owner turns to the dog and asks, “Who is the greatest baseball player of all time?”
The dog answers, “Ruth.” Having seen enough, the agent throws the man and his dog out of his office and onto the street. As the two begin to walk away, the dog turns to his owner and says, “Maybe I should’ve said ‘DiMaggio’?”

Joke #3:
A guy goes on vacation and decides to sweeten the pot for his house sitter: “I’ll add $100 if you paint my porch while I am away. The paint cans are in the garage.”
The guy returns home from his vacation to find a note that reads: “I took care of it. By the way, it was a Mercedes, not a Porsche.”

For the good of all involved, I am not going to share which kid told what joke, although I will share that all of these jokes, for better and for worse, came from Heschel students – a fact that should perhaps prompt soul-searching on the part of the lay and professional leadership of my children’s Jewish day school.

But the real reason I am sharing these jokes – and I promise, I will eventually circle back to our original question – is to explore the nature of telling a joke and the laughter that it prompts. There are, to be sure, all kinds of humor. There is the Seinfeld sort of observational humor: why people say what they say or do what they do. There is satirical humor, sophomoric humor, and my favorite: slapstick humor. There is humor whose aim is to make people feel superior, and there is humor, classically Jewish, that is used to soften a people’s pain, a punching up, if you will, at one’s oppressors. Now is not the time to go into a full anthropological analysis of what makes a joke – a joke. For the purposes of this morning, I simply want to point out what I think lies at the core of the substance, set-up, and delivery of a good joke, and that is the delicious moment when the expected is replaced by the unexpected, the anticipated by the unanticipated, the “DiMaggio” from the dog, the Mercedes not the Porsche, the hushed burger and fries. A good joke hangs on the teller’s ability to establish an assumption as to how the world is supposed to be and then unexpectedly substitute a different reality. It is that absurd gap between the world as it ought to be and the world as it actually is – between the ideal and the real – to which we respond with the most honest expression of our humanity: laughter. What is laughter if not the human attempt, in the words of philosopher Ted Cohen, “to live with that which we cannot understand or subdue.” (Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, p. 41) Laughter is our response to the incongruity of the human condition, our coping mechanism to address the yawning chasm between our hopes and expectations and our reality.

Each one of us and all of us together live every day with this gap – the gap between the world as it is and as it ought to be. As individuals, as families, as people of faith, we wonder how it is that this world of ours – created by God and deemed by God to be good – more often than not falls short of that standard that God set in the very beginning. We hear the news reports and we feel pain. We are disappointed by those around us; we ourselves fall short of our own expectations. We have not been our best selves, we have failed to distinguish right from wrong. This world of ours does not lack for shortcomings, some caused by others, some self-inflicted, and some acts of God or nature. To be human is to contend with the defects of our world and existence.

And laughter? Laughter is but one of many human responses to the gap between the world as it is and the world that we believe God intended to create. The most obvious response is tears. When we are hurt, physically or emotionally, when life, this world, is not the way it is supposed to be, we fill that gap, more often than not, with tears. Another response, apropos of our present setting, is prayer. Prayer can be understood in many ways, but in some fundamental way, prayer is the act of giving voice to our deep-seated aspirations, our hopes for how God’s underachieving world ought to be but isn’t. Oseh shalom bimromav hu ya’aseh shalom. May the God who creates harmony up there – please, please, please – create that harmony down here on earth. That is what prayer is – stretching out our hands in the hope of yanking down a piece of the heavens to be experienced here on earth. What about anger? Anger is another oft-used arrow in our quiver of responses to a world that so often disappoints. But then again, so is beauty. There are many reasons people go to a museum or a concert hall: to develop an aesthetic sensibility, to be inspired by a painting or a song, to imagine a world different than our own, and maybe, just maybe, to be moved to make that idealized world real. I could go on with this taxonomy; there are other responses I have not mentioned. Laughter, tears, prayer, anger, beauty, and others – all very different responses to the shared human attempt to come to terms with the gap between good and bad, between who we are and who we seek to be, between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be.

And this is where next week’s festival of Purim comes in. Setting aside the fantastic story of Esther, which I spoke about last week, the Mardi Gras-like rituals associated with Purim all share a transgressive quality, a narrowing of the gaps and blurring of the lines that otherwise set the contours and conditions of our lives. On Purim we are supposed to dress up; we are given permission to be the people we otherwise would not and cannot be. On Purim we are supposed to drink, which, if nothing else, provides a sort of psychological costume: the fleeting illusion that our problems are not problems, that our world is not really so bad, that everyone is a bit more beautiful, a bit funnier, and a bit better on the dance floor than they actually are. In fact, the tradition teaches, on Purim we are supposed to drink to the point that we can no longer tell the difference between the wickedness of Haman and the righteousness of Mordecai. While I am not exactly sure what that means, it seems to indicate that Purim is a time to imagine a world when the gap between absolute good and absolute evil is no more, a time of innocence not experienced since before the eating of the fruit in the Garden. Most of all, Purim is a time of laughter. With silliness, jokes, costumes, Purim spiels, and overall good cheer, it is one time of the year when we are commanded to be happy – to use any means to bridge the gap between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be.

My intention was not to give a heavy sermon today. Purim is upon us; it is a joyous time of year. I saw Seinfeld perform at the Beacon this week, and, truth to tell, I was hoping, in honor of the season, to give a lighthearted sermon on what makes funny – funny. But then the week turned dark, and we were reminded once again of the hatreds that plague our world, of the persistence of Amalek, of the violence that seems to have become normalized in our world, and of the thin thread upon which all of our lives hang. Most of all, I thought of those fifty souls who, while saying their Friday prayers in the New Zealand mosque, had their lives ripped away by a murderous act. I felt and feel, as I am sure do you, the tears and the anger and need for prayer brought about by the absurd gap between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be.

And it was at that moment that I began to understand why it is that Purim will be the only festival celebrated in the time of the messiah. I don’t know and nobody knows what actually will happen in the time of the messiah. But I believe that at its most basic, the messianic era will be when the world that God intended to create is finally and forever the world that actually is – when the peace in the heavens is also the peace on earth. Purim will be celebrated in the time of the messiah because it will be then that, without costumes, we become the people we want to be; when, without the crutch of alcohol, we return to that Edenic moment of moral purity; and when, with hearts filled with joyous laughter, we see the breach between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be bridged once and for all. Purim is the only festival that will be celebrated in messianic days, because in those days to come, every day will be Purim. Every day will be filled with orah, simhah, sasson vi-y’kar, with light, joy, festivity, and honor.

As caring human beings, as people of faith who treasure our own houses of worship, our hearts are broken at the pain and suffering of last week. We are angry, we are tearful, and we are filled with prayers for lives lost, souls in pain, and for this broken world in such desperate need of repair. We are far from the shallow now. But let’s not forget that we also need a good laugh. We also need a good joke, and we also need a fun song that brings a smile to our face and reminds us of the beauty in this world. Maybe we will share that drink we all need to help make this ugly world of ours a bit more tolerable. It’s not a lot, but then again, it’s not nothing. It even has a name – Purim – and until the messiah arrives, it will just have to do.

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